The disgraced baron's public shaming highlights the need to modernise the upper chamber, says a Liberal Democrat peerby Kishwer Falkner / July 30, 2015 / Leave a comment
Members of the House of Lords tend to dread the Sunday newspapers as they periodically reveal the less salubrious aspects of our colleagues’ behaviour. Last weekend’s scandal involving the crossbench peer Lord Sewel in the Sun on Sunday has stunned us both in its sheer improbability and its contemptuous depiction of us from within our own ranks. For me, leaving aside the cringe-inducing embarrassment of a fellow peer clearly making a fool of himself, it has carried a personal hurt—I am an Asian woman and a London-based peer—both categories he picked on with particular vitriol. In the video accompanying the online version of the story he asks if there will be any “nice little young Asian women” at the party, before adding, “they sort of look innocent but you know they are whores”.
Leaving aside the personal, I lodged a formal complaint with the Lords Commissioner for Standards, on the basis of our Code of Conduct. As far as I know, the complaint will still be investigated.
But this sorry episode has raised questions about the Lords again. The late Conrad Russell, a hereditary peer in the House of Lords posed a question about Lords reform—what was it we wanted, accountability or legitimacy? We couldn’t have both. If we wanted an accountable House of Lords, then we would have to run a parallel chamber to the Commons with constituents and defined boundaries, which would encroach on Commons sovereignty. If we settled for legitimacy, then it would be possible to reform the Lords through electing members in a different way to the Commons and leaving the powers between the two institutions untouched.
The consensus about Lords reform, such as it was over the three main parties’ election manifestos until 2015, settled around seeking legitimacy for the institution. But that was stalled by the collapse of the ill-fated Lord’s Reform Bill of 2012, proposed by Nick Clegg, which would have resulted in a mainly elected upper chamber. So we continue in a state of limbo with an ever-expanding Lords that is set to reach around 835 sitting peers before the end of the year.
With renewed public debate about the value of the House of Lords, it is worth looking at what a revising and scrutinising chamber is for. It is necessary because of our constitution: we have governments that hold a majority in the Commons, and pass pretty much what they want as legislation. The Lords exists to enable the government to “think again.” In my time as a peer, the Lords has stopped Blair’s terrorism measures which proposed 60 days detention without charge in 2005; forced the Coalition to accept significant changes to their NHS-restructuring proposals in 2011, and only last week voted for a more considered method of bringing about English Votes for English Laws. If we had a unicameral chamber working the way the Commons currently does, there would be no check on government power, unless the government side itself rebelled against the whip—which is infrequent.
The number of MPs would also have to increase to bear the workload, or bills would have to take a lot longer to pass through parliament, as scrutiny is time consuming in a unitary system. Neither would be palatable options to a Prime Minister who committed in his manifesto to reduce the size of the Commons.
The other question is whether peers should be paid less, given the perception that we are paid to effectively do nothing, or “f**k all” as Lord Sewel so eloquently put it. Actually the figures are misleading: although there may be 790 peers, less than 500 actually attend or claim an allowance.
The current allowance of up to £300 per day was introduced in October 2010 after a spate of scandals involving abuse of the system and even the fraudulent claiming of what were then described as expenses. The current system may not discriminate between different peers depending on their volunteering to work, and I suspect that there are some who just come in to claim, but the system has reduced scope for abuse by making it a flat rate paid as an allowance rather than as expenses which would require breaking down London accommodation, dining, travel within London, childcare or a multitude of other factors, and would require proof of expenditure, receipts and so on. The allowance also reflects the fact that increasingly younger peers give up paid employment to concentrate full time on their role in the Lords.
The other issue provoking a media frenzy is that peers are only able to claim on the basis of attendance. This rule works to keep costs down—no show, no allowance. I’m sure there would be people happy to be appointed peers without any recompense at all. However, that would rule out most who are not independently wealthy, or part of the top one per cent—more elitist, more removed from normality, and not the best tempering force on the legislators. My quest for reform is to make the Lords more diverse in skills and backgrounds, not less.
So, if peers are to become more visibly useful then the best way to do it is to resurrect the 2012 bill which would have created a Lords of about 450, with a single fixed term of 15 years (so they would be independent minded), and salaried, so they would be perceived as being paid for doing a job. If both the Tories and Labour cannot back that bill, they should use it as the basis of a constitutional convention which looks at House of Lords reform, English votes, the size of both chambers and powers which are devolved to Scotland and Wales. If Lord Sewel’s public shaming sparks a review of our constitutional arrangements, then it will at least have done some good.